Tim Kennedy will headline his first UFC event on Wednesday in Kentucky. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Tim Kennedy had secured a date with the marquee opponent he had sought, until forces beyond his control snatched away the opportunity.
Kennedy will collide with Rafael Natal in the UFC Fight Night 31 “Fight for the Troops 3” headliner on Wednesday at Fort Campbell in Hopkinsville, Ky. The 34-year-old Special Forces sergeant was originally slated to face Lyoto Machida before an eye injury sustained by Michael Bisping led Ultimate Fighting Championship brass to shift “The Dragon” to UFC Fight Night 30 instead. That opened the door for Natal.
A black belt in Japanese jiu-jitsu and the Modern Army Combatives Program, Kennedy will enter the cage on the strength of eight wins in his past 10 appearances. He made his Octagon debut at UFC 162 in July, when he captured a unanimous decision from two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Roger Gracie at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The well-rounded and notoriously durable Kennedy has not been finished in more than a decade.
Natal has rattled off three straight victories since his embarrassing knockout loss to Andrew Craig in July 2012. The Gracie Fusion representative last appeared at UFC Fight Night 28 in September, when he cruised to a unanimous verdict over Tor Troeng at the Jornalista Felipe Drumond Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Natal has proven susceptible to strikes at various points in his career, as three of his four losses have come by knockout or technical knockout.
The UFC Fight Night 31 lineup provides plenty of water cooler fodder. We discuss some of it here:
Whitman: Do you think Machida’s absence has undermined the quality of this card?
Knapp: Rationally, one cannot help but feel that way. Machida is one of the more intriguing and most accomplished fighters on the UFC roster, and the fact that he was downshifting to 185 pounds for the first time only enhanced those qualities. His absence will be felt. However, there are plenty of other interesting matchups on this card. Look no further than the lightweight battle between Jorge Masvidal and Rustam Khabilov.
Whitman: In my mind, Kennedy should mop up Natal. Are you with me on this? What would be the fallout of a Kennedy loss?
Knapp: “Mop up” might be too strongly worded, but yes, Kennedy seems like the clear favorite here. He proved over eight rounds against Gracie and Ronaldo Souza that he could hold his own with elite grapplers in the cage, and Kennedy can do everything else Natal does a little bit better.
Whitman: Yoel Romero Palacio’s middleweight debut yielded impressive results, as the former Olympic silver medalist felled Clifford Starks with a wicked flying knee at UFC on Fox 7. What is your appraisal of the muscular 36-year-old as a late-blooming MMA prospect and what chances do you give him against the younger Ronny Markes?
Knapp: Palacio should certainly have everyone’s attention by now. Considering his amateur wrestling pedigree -- a former world champion who won a silver medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics -- and his ability to incorporate damaging standup techniques into his arsenal, I would not be surprised at all if he beats Markes handily. His advanced age and physique give me pause, especially if Markes draws him into a deep fight, but Palacio has all the tools necessary to succeed at a high level in MMA. It also does not hurt that he now calls one of the sport’s thinnest divisions home. Palacio, who reminds some of a larger version of American Top Team stablemate Hector Lombard, could move quickly if he takes out Markes as ruthlessly as he bounced Starks.
Whitman: Although I still have mad respect for Alexis Davis, she did not exactly inspire a ton of confidence in her decision win over Rosi Sexton UFC 161. What are her chances against the hard-hitting Liz Carmouche?
Knapp: I think we can take Davis’ performance against Sexton with a grain of salt. Fighters tend to underperform the first time they set foot inside the UFC’s cage, and she deserves credit for beating a respected veteran like “The Surgeon.” With that said, Davis has her work cut out for her in this one. Carmouche is a brute of a bantamweight and wields some of the most vicious ground-and-pound in women’s MMA. Davis can improve her chances by staying off the bottom. Otherwise, she is in for a long night.
Whitman: I think Khabilov is one of the most exciting young talents to enter the UFC in recent memory, but then, you know I am a sucker for suplexes. Masvidal will undoubtedly be the toughest test of the Dagestani’s career. I do not see either man quitting in this one. Do you think we are looking at the “Fight of the Night” here?
Knapp: This is a strong “Fight of the Night” candidate, for sure. A former world champion in sambo and pankration, Khabilov was spectacular in his suplex-laden UFC debut against Vinc Pichel in December before benefitting from a thumb injury suffered by Yancy Medeiros at UFC 159. Masvidal represents a steep rise in degree of difficulty, as he has far more experience than his Russian counterpart, including a five-round scrap with Gilbert Melendez in 2011. I think we find out a lot about Khalibov in this fight.